Labor Advocate Online
Labor Day Special

Decline In Union Numbers and Battles Explain Part of Working Class Downturn in Fortunes

For a twenty-five year period after the end of World War II the wages, benefits, and working conditions of American workers were the envy of the world. Of course this was made possible by the unique role played by the American economy in a world where most of the major industrial economies had been destroyed in the war. There was also the neocolonial success of the United States supplanting the domination of old colonial powers in what came to be known as the Third World. America became a superpower both militarily and economically.

But American workers would not have gotten nearly as great a share of the prosperity enjoyed by their employers if there had not been a powerful trade union movement.

Although American unions have never organized more than a third of the working class, for decades they thrived in basic manufacturing, mining, construction, and transportation. Union contracts established industrial and craft patterns that indirectly benefited millions of unorganized workers as well.

By the 1970s the old European powers and Japan had rebuilt their economies—and they did so with the latest technology. America, still a military superpower, had some competition in the world economy. The bosses responded to this challenge by trying to drive down labor costs through a massive restructuring of the American economy. That meant challenging the unions on a scale not seen since the Great Depression.

A combination of new technology, runaway plants, out sourcing, deregulation, and, most recently, off-shoring, has eliminated millions of good paying union jobs over the past three decades. Even though there has been considerable growth in public sector unions the traditional private sector bastions of unionism have been decimated.

In 2003, 12.9 percent of wage and salary workers were union members, down from 13.3 percent in 2002. The number of persons belonging to a union fell by 369,000 over the year to 15.8 million in 2003.

Union membership in the private sector has sunk to the alarming microscopic rate of 8.2 percent.

As can be clearly seen in this BLS table, sinking membership numbers have been accompanied by a dramatic drop in strike actions. In 1974 there were 424 strikes involving a thousand or more workers, totaling 1.8 million strikers for the year. In 1982, the first full year after the PATCO confrontation with the late, lamented Reagan, major strikes slipped into double digit numbers for the first time—96. Last year there were only 14 such strikes.

Clearly, palpable threats of replacement, or plant closings, have made strikes a defensive tactic of last resort. Most strikes today are in response to employer demands for major take aways. More than a few are lost. Every new defeat cools the frigid labor climate a few more degrees.

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